Predicting what’s going to happen in the next season of NFL free agency is astronomically more difficult than taking a crack at mocking the NFL draft. The reason is really simple: we don’t know who’s going to be available.
After a certain deadline, all of the prospects available for the draft will have declared that they’re putting their names in the hat to be called up to the NFL.
In free agency, the pool of available players changes daily.
Contracts are constantly being negotiated up until the start of the next league year. Teams rarely let their best players walk away, and they almost always have the option to restrict their competitors’ access to their own free agents thanks to tags.
As if that weren’t enough of a struggle, you have to account for which veterans will be released from their teams. Some cuts are expected, like the Saints dumping disgraced former defensive back Brandon Browner less than a year after signing him. Others can be a surprise; the Saints’ starting middle linebacker, James Laurinaitis, was doing PR work for the Los Angeles Rams this spring when he got his pink slip.
The point of all this is to acknowledge that free agency is a fluid process, always in motion, and difficult to predict. We should take today’s lists of free agents with a grain of salt because it’ll look very different in six brief months.
After the Saints’ sluggish start (which has since changed for the better), it was tempting to look to the future. We just have to keep in mind the futility of trying to say which free agents will really hit the market. Rather than target specific players, we should look at what needs teams need to fill and then try to identify several candidates who could help.
With that in mind, here’s my strategy for trying to figure out who the Saints may target next March when the auction-house doors open and teams can earnestly try to add veteran talent. I’m going to rank possible free agents in tiers, with a possible veteran cut thrown into the mix.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the Saints are looking to enter 2017 with one of the NFL’s densest rosters. Only the San Diego Chargers have more players under contract for next year, so unlike many teams the Saints will look to upgrade existing pieces on the roster rather than fill blank spaces with warm bodies. They have the luxury of not needing to overspend on a guy so that they can field a complete team.
I’ll have other articles up throughout the week discussing other units, so for now let’s get started with a position on everyone’s mind: the offensive guards.
The Top Tier
Kevin Zeitler looks to be the best guard on the market next spring. He has a good shot at being available after his agents tabled negotiations on a new contract during the 2016 season. Zeitler turns 27-years old the day free agency begins (March 8th) and, barring injury, will have an unbroken streak of eight years of consecutive starts at right guard dating back to his 2009 sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin.
#Bengals OL Kevin Zeitler was the only RG in 2015 with 500 or more pass-blocks and no sacks allowed (per PFF). Pretty incredible stat.— Rand Getlin (@Rand_Getlin) September 9, 2016
Zeitler is a blue-chip talent by every measure and the low-key third cornerstone of the Bengals’ offense along with quarterback Andy Dalton and wideout A.J. Green. The delay in Zeitler’s contract talks helps his chances of being available for New Orleans to pounce on, but I would expect him to get re-upped by next March.
The same statement is true of Green Bay Packers guard T.J. Lang. Lang formed one of the NFL’s most-potent interior lines along with Josh Sitton, who was released earlier this month on the premise of freeing up resources to re-sign the rest of Green Bay’s offensive line long-term. Lang is an All-Pro talent and has been a bedrock piece in Green Bay for years. It’s hard to imagine him leaving the team after Sitton was released, but that odd front office decision could have ramifications with Lang personally.
If Lang hits the market the Saints will most-definitely be in the hunt for his services, but I would be surprised if he’s available. Few teams have been as good as Green Bay in drafting, developing, and retaining their own talent in recent years. That said, Lang is 29-years old and has more wear-and-tear on his body than most free agents-to-be.
The Middle Class
After those top options, three guards are at the front of my mind. One of them, Dallas Cowboys left guard Ronald Leary, has clearly been on the Saints’ radar as well. New Orleans tried to land Leary through a trade but couldn’t agree with Dallas on compensation. Leary is a quality starter who has been in and out of the lineup depending on the health of La’el Collins, and could solidify the Saints’ offensive line if he himself can stay on the field.
Leary turns 28-years old the Saturday of the 2017 NFL Draft and is a physical, competent player. He can execute the man- and zone-blocking concepts the Saints like to run as well as be an asset in pass protection. He was only benched last year after suffering a groin injury, which opened the door for Collins to start.
Leary frequently interacts with Saints players on social media, and at this point it honestly feels like a formality for him to join the team. I feel confident about his chances of signing with New Orleans once he’s available.
However, there are two other options the Saints could pursue in the same talent range as Leary. New York Jets guard Brian Winters, only 25-years old, has quietly grown into a strong starter and could be a shot in the arm for the Saints now that he’s fully-returned from a 2014 ACL tear. Detroit Lions guard Larry Warford, also 25, has shown great potential when healthy. I would expect both of them to be on the Saints’ radar come March 2017.
The Risky Gambles
If the Saints can’t land any of those options (as happened this past spring with Minnesota Vikings guard Alex Boone and Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard J.R. Sweezy) they’ll have to roll the dice on a lesser talent/recovery project that probably won’t upgrade what they already have. With Tim Lelito slated for free agency (and not playing particularly well), Senio Kelemete testing an injured hamstring, and Jahri Evans another year older, the Saints are almost-guaranteed to bring in a new player just as security.
Luke Joeckel doing a pretty good at LG against Sen'Derrick Marks. https://t.co/DTWpjd9r5t— Mike Kaye (@mike_e_kaye) August 3, 2016
There a couple of prospects with notoriety as high draft picks to go under scrutiny. Jacksonville Jaguars lineman and former second-overall pick Luke Joeckel flopped at left tackle and has since moved inside to guard, but hasn’t been very successful. Maybe a change of scenery could help him, but expectations should be tempered for him after several disappointing years. Joeckel’s days in Jacksonville are likely over following an early-season knee injury that put him on injured reserve.
Jonathan Cooper has notably seen his own changes in scenery thanks to a much-publicized trade from the Arizona Cardinals to the New England Patriots. He never played for the Patriots after rehabbing another lower-leg injury. Few players win elsewhere if Bill Belichick can’t fix them, so Cooper isn’t really someone to get excited about. He has since been waived and claimed by the Cleveland Browns.
Tennessee Titans guard Chance Warmack is a great athlete who has worked hard to improve himself, spending offseasons training with former New Orleans Saints great LeCharles Bentley at his offensive line clinic. Warmack’s play has fluctuated between great and mediocre, with inconsistent vision and a penchant for holding at the second level keeping him from living up to his draft billing. A torn tendon in Warmack’s finger ended his 2016 season, but out of the bottom-tier of guards to be available next spring, Warmack may move the needle the most.
The Wild Cards
As I said earlier, some teams will release veterans before, during, and after the March free agency deadline. Whether that’s to save salary cap space or part ways with underperforming assets changes from one case to another, but here’s my tentative look into who may unexpectedly hit the market.
If you look around the league one name that may jump out at you is Baltimore Ravens guard Marshal Yanda. Don’t waste a second hoping Yanda gets released to save cap space because he’s probably the best player on Baltimore’s roster, even at age 32. The Ravens would save about $2.4 million by releasing him, and they are fifth-worst in 2017 salary cap space, but hoping he becomes available is a fool’s errand.
There really aren’t many guys to expect to hit the free agent market unexpectedly. Maybe one of several players who recently signed extensions like Pittsburgh Steelers guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro gets released for subpar play. It’s possible that San Diego Chargers guard D.J. Fluker’s fifth-year option of about $8.8 million is too much to bear for a team with little salary cap space. But I wouldn’t bet any noteworthy new faces to be available next spring.
Stay tuned for my next post, which will explore defensive ends the New Orleans Saints should consider in 2017 free agency.